Righting the Course

Three years ago at the end of May, my husband and I retreated north, so far north that we couldn’t get a cell signal. We each brought the materials we would need to plan the courses we’d be teaching that fall. Away from the Internet and the daily routine, we found time to go for walks, take naps, eat well, and outline goals and objectives for our in-coming students.

Two years ago, we escaped south — we spent two weeks in Fort Myers and even rented a car and drove south, south, south, until we got to Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States. We didn’t plan for classes on that trip — no, we’d been particularly busy all year, so we devoted time to beach exploring, CSI Miami binge-watching, puzzling, and pleasure reading.

Last year was the year of the Great British Baking Show — the year of sitting on our couch, the year of grief, the year of remembering how to breathe. We didn’t go north or south — we were doing well to stay right where we were.

This year, in the middle of winter, we marked off this week to head north. Our bags are packed, and we’ll soon be on our way. We won’t be writing any courses this year, but we may continue ‘righting our course’.

We’ve been ‘righting our course’ since we came to this little house by the river. We weren’t really planning on that. We knew it would be a new season with our kids all moving into adulthood and us moving back to our home state, but we didn’t really know how much our lives would be under re-construction.

We knew that we were stepping into change –my husband was leaving congregational ministry and moving into a much different role at a university, our kids were moving on, and I was committing to healing. What we didn’t know was that my physical healing was just the beginning. Our move back to Michigan would be the start of a much more global transformation.

We’d been living a propped up existence — caulking leaks and mending seams with duct tape — for a long time. We’d been moving too fast to make thorough repairs in the moment, so we’d patched up what we could and just kept moving, unaware of the extent of the underlying structural damage caused by years of neglect. My health crisis was the impetus for slowing down and dealing with the repairs, and once we started looking, we kept finding more and more projects. However, since life doesn’t have a pause button so that you can do a full renovation before you move on to the next chapter, our reconstruction has been a work in progress.

In the past five years, we’ve witnessed our children move into adulthood — facing and navigating obstacles, chasing and re-defining dreams, finding and losing love, losing and finding themselves. We’ve watched, supported, and done our best to encourage, while we have at the same time found ourselves figuratively pulling down dated wallpaper, exposing water-damaged drywall, and tearing up old floor boards.

As each project has presented itself, we’ve surveyed the damage with crossed arms and furrowed brows, and have then chosen — sometimes reluctantly — to do the hard work of repair. We’ve addressed our health through different approaches to diet, exercise, physical therapy, and medication under the supervision of myriad medical professionals. We’ve examined our emotions through intentional work together, separately, and with therapists. We’ve explored our work/life balance through experimentation with different levels of responsibility and various forms recreation. We’ve invested in our spirituality by spending time with our congregation, our small group, and our own individual study. And bit by bit, little by little, things are starting to come together.

And, now that we are able to sit comfortably in this reconstructed existence, we are finding ourselves sipping tea, taking walks, and questioning our thinking — testing long-held positions on most every imaginable topic.

Every day it seems, my husband and I look at one another and say, what’s God doing here? how do we feel about that? why do we feel this way? what steps should we take? what needs to shift? how do we still need to heal? what is the root of this problem? what is our part in the solution? where are we going? what are we doing?

We don’t have the answers — just a lot of questions.

This is new.

We have been the leaders, the doers, the deciders for most of our adult lives. We have written the courses, made the plans, and mapped out the journeys for ourselves and others. We have called the shots, made snap decisions, trusted our guts, and driven the bus.

But guys, we found ourselves on a course set for collapse.

And now that we’ve taken stock and submitted to a period of reconstruction, our posture is very different. We are realizing that life is full of nuance and complexity: we couldn’t possibly know all there is to know. We have admitted that we got some stuff wrong, and, we are asking some serious questions.

And the interesting part of all this is that, now in our fifties, we aren’t scared. In fact, I would say that we are energized. We’re reaping the benefits of the changes we’ve made in these last five years, and we are on the edge of our seats, big goofy grins on our faces, waiting to see where the questions lead us.

So this trip north is going to be a little different. We’ve packed sweatshirts and flip flops, notebooks and pens, trail mix and tea, and so many questions. We’ll carry them with us — tucked in our pockets, shoved in our bags, and strapped to the roof of the car. We may take them out and look at them, we may discuss a few, and we may leave a few on the beach among the rocks, but I am picturing most of them will come back with us unanswered. And that does not discourage me, in fact, it’s a relief, because I am reminded that we are no longer in the season of having all the answers.

We have moved comfortably into the season of holding all the questions. And you, know, I’m starting to like it here.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

John 6:68

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Blessing upon blessing

I was standing in a local thrift shop sorting through 50-cent coffee cups. My husband had asked me to grab a half-dozen or so for his office so that college students who come in to grab coffee can take one ‘to-go’. I visit this section often — not only to stock the student life office, but also to replace the many cups that I break or absent-mindedly leave in my path. I was picking out some sturdy looking cups for the students when a beautiful floral pattern caught my eye — it was a little small for my taste, but it was so lovely I decided to put it in the basket with the others and make it my own. Only when I got to the cash register did I realize that it had scripture written on the inside of the rim.

….one blessing after another…

Sometime in the months since I brought it home, I made an un-official decision that this cup will be for special circumstances only. It’s not to be carried out the door in the morning rush, clutched through rush hour traffic, and plunked on my desk at work. No, this cup is for the lingering pondering cuppa. It’s for sipping while sitting and savoring. It’s an object of beauty that I’ll use when I need a little encouragement, a little healing, a little celebration, a little recognition of the grace that has poured out one blessing after another.

I’ve got it in my hand right now.

I’m by myself in my little house by the river for 48 hours of self-imposed solitary confinement. My husband is out of town, so I am seizing the opportunity to be quiet, forget about the clock, take care of a couple tasks, make a few long-overdue phone calls, and spend some time reflecting.

Regular doses of solitude heal and restore me.

So what have I done so far? I’ve practiced yoga, done some writing, read a few chapters in Michelle Obama’s Becoming, slept until I woke up — twice! — and watched six episodes of Queer Eye (a delightful show with a message of healing and hope).

I’ve done some cleaning and organizing, paid some bills, folded some laundry, and worked on a puzzle. I’ve spoken at length to both of my parents and to my parents-in-law. I’ve eaten when I’ve been hungry, lounged on the couch in yoga pants, and sipped several cups of tea.

My dog has been following me from room to room, plunking down wherever I plunk, and occasionally standing in front of me, staring me down, until I remember that it is time to walk around the yard.

It’s on these kinds of days, when the agenda is fluid and my expectations for productivity are low, that tucked away thoughts and feelings jangle loose. I’ve poured a lovely cup of tea to enjoy while I observe them.

I’ve been thinking about the visit I had with my breakfast club girls last week. We got together to celebrate my recent birthday; they showered me with gifts and treated me to dinner. As we chatted and laughed, I was struck by the contrast between this birthday celebration and the one we had last year, when I’d been been buried in grief and had cried as they’d leaned into my pain. This year, I was filled with gratitude for their partnership in my suffering, for their unconditional love, and for willingness to acknowledge and celebrate my blessings.

I’m also looking back at my weekend away with one hundred or so pastors’ wives. I pulled out my notes this morning and remembered our time in Bible study where we sat around tables using pens and colored pencils to draw visual reminders of what we were learning. I heard our voices singing together — both in worship and in fun. I saw friends who I only see at this conference, smiling and saying, “We missed you last year!” I felt the compassion of a soul sister who pulled me aside, probed gently, and let me share just a bit; she bore some pain with me and then shared in my gratitude.

I’m scrolling through thoughts of dinner with my godparents, laughing with friends until my sides hurt, and car rides with new and old friends. I’m relishing in the realization that unlike the last time I gathered with these women, I didn’t need rest breaks, or pain medication — not even when I stayed up way past my bedtime.

Blessing upon blessing upon blessing.

I’m spending this weekend alone so that I can reflect on these blessings. I said no to a few people (probably disappointing at least a couple) and chose solitude. And because I did, I’ve had the time to notice each of these jangly thoughts as they’ve settled down beside me. I’ve had opportunity to look closely at how I’ve been blessed, and I am now restored so that I can step away from my solitude.

It’s a new way — a new rhythm.

Toward the end of the soldiering years, I remember my husband, who was also trying to slow his pace and find a different way, telling me about a rhythm of sabbath. The idea was to pause daily, weekly, and yearly — to intentionally plan for space to pause. I remember thinking, “That’d be nice, dear, but you do see that I’m busy here, don’t you?”

And somehow, after almost five years in this little house by the river, we have joined this rhythm. Each day the two of us wake up in the dark — before we see our people or do our things — we each take a time of reading, writing, reflection, and intentional movement. On Sundays we extend this rhythm by continuing on to worship with our community. Each year, we’ve miraculously been able to get away for a week or two alone to put our phones on silent, to forget about the clock, and to read, write, reflect, and rest.

This is one more realization that just floated down and snuggled in next to me. I never would have believed we could live this way, and here we are.

I’m going to make another cup of tea and savor every last moment of this solitude, this sanctuary, this sabbath. This in itself is one more blessing.

Ten out of ten would recommend.

Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.

Mark 6:31

Becoming Well(-er)

Five years ago, I was getting ready to transition away from a job I loved and a beautiful home in a community that had forever re-shaped us. One of several reasons for all of this change was my health. I had been diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis after a series of symptoms — extreme fatigue, skin outbreaks, and joint pain — had led me to a rheumatologist. I was depleted. I could no longer sustain the demands of teaching and staff development, let alone maintain our home or do any level of caring for our family. Something had to change.

I began this blog in the midst of that transition because I needed a space to process all that was happening. Our oldest son and his wife were expecting our first grandchild. Our oldest daughter was graduating from college and moving across the country. Our younger son was in the military, and our youngest daughter was heading off to college. My husband was in a new position, and I was just going to focus on getting well for a while. While everyone else was moving, I was going to be still. (You can find the very first post from this blog here.)

A lot has changed since that first blog post. My husband and I were talking yesterday and it became clear that I don’t always articulate the changes that have happened inside of me — partly because they have happened slowly over the last five years and partly because I talked and wrote about my physical health so much in the first few years of my blog that I’m kind of over it. Certainly every one is sick and tired of hearing about me being sick and tired!

But here’s the thing, I’m not as sick and tired as I was five years ago. So perhaps it’s time to explore that reality. Maybe putting words to the ways that God has provided for my recovery will be an encouragement to me and to you. Shall we see?

First of all, I no longer have the psoriatic arthritis diagnosis. Bam! It’s gone. I used to be angry about this. When the doctor told me that I did not have psoriatic arthritis, I felt dismissed. Certainly I still had pain, and psoriasis, and fatigue, and the HLA-B27 genetic marker often associated with certain autoimmune diseases. And I had also had two rounds of scleritis, an autoimmune affliction of the eye. I thought the doctors’ removal of my diagnosis was a denial of my symptoms. However, over time, I have come to feel emancipated. I don’t have psoriatic arthritis, so, in some ways, my symptoms feel less permanent, less limiting; I feel hopeful for improvement.

Second of all, I am no longer taking medications to treat pain or inflammation. In fact, other than a daily pill to inhibit the growth of herpes in my eyes (a result of some of the psoriatic arthritis treatments), I take only supplements — Vitamins B, C, and D, fish oil, and magnesium. Occasionally, I have to take some ibuprofen if I’m having a particularly difficult day, but mostly I am able to manage pain with movement, ice, epsom salt baths, and (a surprise to me!) peppermint essential oil. This is also quite liberating. In addition to the side effects from taking daily medication, I also experienced the feeling that I was some kind of invalid, particularly when I was injecting myself when Enbrel or Humira or Cosentyx. And since none of these drugs really benefitted my physical symptoms, I was actually getting an overall negative impact. Eliminating each of them, over time and with doctors’ supervision, was further removal of that permanent diagnosis.

Next, I have been blessed by a fabulous team. I first wrote about them here. I have found that the best way to improve my health is to regularly attend to it, so I see a specialized physical therapist twice a month, a chiropractor once or twice a month, and I recently added monthly visits to a structural medicine practitioner who specializes in Hellerwork. This regimen, along with my daily practice of yoga have worked together to strengthen, care for, and realign my body in ways that decrease my pain and increase my ability to participate in my daily life. I feel stronger, more flexible, and more capable. Imagine my joy last summer when I was able to have a daily plank challenge with my students — me, the oldest member of our staff, on the floor in full plank with a room full of elementary school boys.

Do you hear it? The sound of healing and hope? I do! That alone is worth writing about. The mental shift from “I have a chronic illness,” to “I am getting stronger,” can not be overstated. I have written often about how this “illness” has actually been a blessing for me. It gave me a reason to slow down, take stock, and re-configure my life in a way that supports physical, emotional, and spiritual health. And that process — that slowing, that experimenting, that shifting — has allowed for miraculous transformation in my thinking.

Do I still have pain? Yes. I have persistent pain, predominantly in my right sacroiliac joint and low back; the intensity of this pain varies depending on activity — how much I sit, stand, move, stretch– and how often I receive proactive treatment. (In addition to the work my team and I do, I occasionally get a steroid injection in that joint to reduce inflammation.) Do I still have fatigue? Yup. However, I’ve been amazed that since last summer I have been working 35-40 hours every week. Although this is do-able, it does limit my ability to interact with friends and family. (I need to sleep anywhere from 8 hours on a typical night to 12 hours when I’m really wiped out.) Optimally, I would like to work 30-35 hour weeks so that I can still have the energy to go for a walk and have dinner with my husband, develop friendships, and travel to see family frequently. Do I still have psoriasis? Very limited. I call my psoriasis my “barometer”. If I am doing too much, the palm of my right hand becomes inflamed — that’s my first signal that I need to slow down and attend to self-care. If I ignore it, I get more outbreaks, but even then, they are much easier to manage than they were five years ago. Do I still have issues with my eyes? Yes. Like my psoriasis, my left eye will become inflamed if I am overdoing it. I have learned to take that signal and slow down to provide extra care. In this way, I have avoided major issues.

Do you see it? Do you see how God has used these signals to transform my life? Probably more than any other topic in this blog, I have written about my soldiering ways. I was really good for a really long time at doing whatever needed to be done. I was constantly in motion — driving, teaching, cleaning, shopping, directing, running. I thought I was getting it right, but I was getting it all wrong. I was missing all the critical moments — the seeing, the listening, the caring, the holding. So rather than letting me continue in that fashion, God slowed me down. First, He sat me flat on my butt and got my attention. He has since re-instructed me in how to live a healthy life. And, because He knows that I am bent on going right back to my old ways, He allows a few signals to remain — to remind me, “Hey, Kristin, you’re doing it again.”

That’s how much He loves me, guys. He created a plan just for me to specifically address my particular learning needs.

I remember the flood of emotion back when I got my initial diagnosis — anger, sadness, helplessness. Now? I am so thankful for this journey. I am forever changed by my experience. I would no longer say that I am ‘sick’, but that I am becoming more well every day.

I know that my story is not the same as everyone’s story. Some people experience chronic illness very differently than I do; some people suffer terribly. And certainly, my route to healing is just that — my route. However, I pray that you, too, may experience whatever kind of healing you most need and that you would be aware of how God demonstrates his deep love uniquely for you. Your journey may not look like mine, but I am confident of this: like me, you are being carried in the palm of His hand.

God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

Take Care for the Holidays

I’ve been easing myself in to the holiday season.  It all starts with emails and phone calls early in October.  Who is doing what for Thanksgiving? Who is hosting? Who will travel?

Discussions of Thanksgiving turn into talks about Christmas. Who will we see? Who will we miss? Where will we worship? What gifts will we buy?

Holidays matter. They have been historical points of connection. Even if they haven’t been perfect, they have had meaning. So each year we start early to anticipate reunions and traditions, fondly remembering turkey dinners, caroling door to door, sledding down snowy hills, eating Christmas cookies, and unwrapping presents on Christmas morning. And we build expectation that our holiday gatherings will be Norman Rockwell perfection — even if they never have been.

All of this hope and expectation filters into our holiday conversations, which, if they haven’t already, will start this week.  You’ll ask or be asked, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” expecting to hear something like, “Well, we always go to my grandmother’s,” or “We host a huge feast every year,” or “I’m getting together with my friends locally.” These questions seem harmless or even polite, but you may be surprised to learn that they can be emotionally laden (and even triggering) for many among us.

  • For the young man estranged from his family because of differences in beliefs.
  • For the grieving parents whose only child lost the battle to cancer in February.
  • For the recovering addict who isn’t up to managing the annual toast or maneuvering through family drama.
  • For the woman who was molested by a family member every holiday during her childhood.
  • For the newly widowed man who lost the love of his life last summer.
  • For the family who is recovering from years of dysfunction and trying to start new traditions.

They are all around us — these brave souls who are taking great pains to get out of bed every day, who struggle on a Tuesday to shower, dress, get to work, and feed themselves. Regular days are hard.

Holidays?  Those are next-level difficult.

I was lying on a table last week as one member of my health care team was attending to my body. We entered into the pre-Thanksgiving questioning protocol benignly enough, but before I knew it, there were silent tears and flashes of memory. Holidays do that.  They conjure up images of joy and pain — the full tables and the empty places. They invoke feelings of contentment and regret. They raise expectation and anxiety.  Cordial exchanges that seem casual on the surface, may trigger an emotional reaction in those among us who are quietly struggling or suffering.

Am I saying that you shouldn’t ask the questions, or that you should veer away from discussions of family and Christmas and tradition and celebration? Not at all.

I’m saying, take care.

I’m saying look people in the eyes. Ask, and then listen. Don’t assume that every person in your world is looking forward to the holidays with joy.  Rather, know that for many this is a very difficult time of the year. As you move through your pre-holiday interactions with the people in your life, you may be the only person to see the hard swallow, the averted gaze. You might be the only one to notice the dodged question or the avoidant joke.

And when you do, lean in.  That hurting person needs to know that you saw, that you noticed, that you heard.

After I got up off that table last week, my provider and I exchanged a hug. That’s all. No prying. No awkwardness. Just a hug. The tears were seen and acknowledged. That was enough.

Yesterday, I began my search for gifts for the important people in my life.  My focus was on the objects, of course. I was trying to find just the right items. A salesperson asked me if I was just looking; I said yes and then continued to browse. She kept talking, wanting to tell me about the sales. My initial reaction was to be annoyed, “Just let me shop; I said I don’t need any help.” I didn’t say it out loud, thankfully. Instead, I stopped, listened, and chatted with her a couple of times. I looked at her eyes. I listened to her voice.

I’m trying to live differently.

I think that’s where it starts, don’t you? If I just pause from churning through my to-do list for a moment, slow my roll a bit, I can see the other people around me. And when I see them, I will begin to notice the ones who just can’t wait to get home to be with their families and the ones who are aching and anxious and wish we would just knock it off with all the angels and bells and Santas already.

And when I notice, I can take care, lean in, and listen a little bit more.

 

Romans 12:10

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.

Process-ing

I had been trying to get back into the swing of writing consistently, plopping down 300 words a day in front of all of you, following Anne Lamott’s suggestion to just get them on the page. Every day I was stumbling along obediently, in true teacher fashion, modeling what I hoped my students would do — dump out the story; clean it up later.

I wasn’t liking any of what I was writing, but I believed that if I kept at it, I would eventually get some gold.

About that time, the group of ladies that I meet with for breakfast suggested that we begin reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.  I wasn’t with them when they made the decision, but I got a text with the title that the others had chosen. We’ve read many books together already: Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way, Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, and Brene’ Brown’s Braving the Wilderness among them. We often make our selection based on a hunch one of us has that a book going to be good. Without fail, each of the books has served almost as a guide to the narratives of our individual lives — just the thing we needed to hear at a particular time.

For example, when we read The Broken Way, one of us was walking her mother through her last days, another was hearing for the first time the brutal details of a horrible event in a family member’s history, and another was learning that her husband’s cancer had returned.  We were collectively broken, and Ann Voskamp helped us not run from it, but sit in it.

We read Braving the Wilderness against the backdrop of a highly divided nation and discussed how we could be open to conversations with people who don’t agree with us and how we must be brave enough to do this crucial work.

We’ve come to expect that when one of us suggests a book, we should all just jump on board because each of the books we’ve read have guided our conversations and shaped our hearts. Over and over, in the space of a morning-dark living room, we have together been changed.

So why, when I got the text about The Artist’s Way did I turn up my nose?  Well, besides being stubborn by nature, I hadn’t heard the reason for this choice.  And, to be honest, the word ‘artist’ in the title came with a whole bunch of associations that I didn’t feel connected to. Finally, my work schedule had been such that I figured, “Yeah, maybe my season with this group is done. This one probably isn’t for me.”

And so I didn’t buy the book.  I just kept tossing out three hundred words a day like magical seeds that might one day sprout into something.

Then a few weeks later, one Sunday morning at church, one of my breakfast club friends said, “Aren’t you loving this book?  I can’t believe how much I love all the writing!”

Wait. What?

“The writing?” I said.  “I’ve gotta admit, I haven’t bought the book yet, what kind of writing are you talking about?”

“Oh, my gosh, you’ll love it! You have to commit to writing three pages every morning. I keep getting up in the middle of the night, and I can’t believe all the things I’m putting on the page.”

As she’s talking, I’m opening the Amazon app on my phone, searching for the title, and clicking “purchase”.

“Really? I didn’t know it involved writing. I guess I thought it was going to be about art.”

“No!  It’s about the artist inside of all of us. Oh, Kristin, you’ve got to read this book. I’m telling you, you’re going to love it.”

“Well, I just purchased it. So, I’ll start this week.”

And then the book arrived.  I opened to the introduction, because I’m one of those people who reads introductions, and I just didn’t like the tone of the author. She sounded very know-it-ally, and I just couldn’t. So I set the book on the table next to where I usually write and walked away.

For a week I didn’t write anything. Granted, we were busy at work and I didn’t have a lot of steam left when I got home, and getting up extra early in the morning seemed out of the question.

Until I found myself writing this around 2am:

Technically it’s morning. It’s the middle of the night. Up with pain and brain again. I grumbled about this book today — didn’t want to get it in the first place — dumb title.  Irrelevant. Then the self-important tone of the intro made me want my money back. But I’m not even through the first chapter and I know that Julie Cameron is right. If I write — actually write — three pages every morning, I will create an opening.  

And I started getting up every day at 5:45 — yes, 5:45 — to use a pen and a notebook to write at least three pages. And, like my friend, I’ve been amazed at what has shown up on the page. I’m not censoring, because I’m not writing for an audience. Instead, I am letting whatever is in me come out. Some days I’m writing about things long past. Other days I’m scratching out my current to-do list. I’m writing anger and anxiety and regret and sadness and hope and prayer.  I’m filling my second spiral notebook with no intention of accomplishing anything other than creating an opening.

I met with the breakfast club girls this week. Four of the five of us are writing these pages each morning (or sometimes in the middle of the night).  The one who isn’t said, “So, you’re writing?”  And the rest of us practically pushed each other out of the way to share how profound the experience has been. Then, I sheepishly admitted, “I’m only on chapter two of the actual reading.”  Surely by now, I thought, two months later, everyone else would be almost finished with the book.

“Me, too!” one said.

“I’m only on chapter four,” said another.

And it dawned on me — getting through the book is not the point. This book is not about finishing, it’s about being open to the process. And that is the message of relevance this time around. Just like every other book we’ve read, this one is speaking into our individual narratives. One of us is learning how to be a widow. Another is walking into retirement in a new home in a new community. One is about to become a grandmother for the first time. Another is navigating the comings and goings of young adult children. Me? I’m discovering after thinking that my professional career was over, that I might just have another round in me.

We’re all in phases that aren’t really about arriving or finishing; they are more about being, practicing, living, and breathing through the process.

So, it’s 6:32 am, and I’m spending this morning’s time to reflect, because, writing three pages every morning isn’t so magical that I can’t take a break to put my fingers on keys. I’ve created enough space to see that I can allow myself space.  And that is some kind of gold.

Psalm 5:3

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.

Time Trial

You knew it was coming.  You read some blah, blah, blah I wrote about working 20-30 hours a week, and you rolled your eyes and thought to yourself, “Yeah, that’ll last.”

You think you know me?

Ok, fine.  I’m pretty predictable.

I was a few months into my current position when my supervisor asked me if I would be interested in doing a little more training to become a mentor to other instructors — newly hired clinicians who, by design, receive scheduled coaching. Well, yeah. I’d like to do that. I mean, 1) I’ll take any training you will give me. I love to learn;  2) I love observing  other professionals. It sharpens me as much as it sharpens them. So, bam, I became a mentor.

I was getting used to that position when I was approached again: would I be interested in being an instructional pacer. I’d have to get a bit more training regarding standardized tests and analyzing student scores. I’d also have to see how our instructional practices target the specific learning needs of each of our students. In other words, I’d have to understand the why and how of instruction.  Was I in? Definitely.

I was willing to step into these positions knowing that I would be called upon to work more than the hours I initially agreed to because although I’ve struggled with my health for six years now, I have been feeling fine since I started this job. Maybe it’s the fact that I had a series of steroid injections in my S/I joint in January (about the time I hired in), and my pain has been greatly decreased. Maybe it’s the consistency of the schedule — my work day never falls outside of standard 8-5 hours. Maybe it’s the positivity of the work environment — we clap, hooray, and celebrate all day long. Maybe it’s a combination of all these factors that have made this position a good fit for this time.

Whatever it is, I have decided that I’m willing to try full-time employment for the summer.  I’ll give it a shot and see how it works. If you’ve read my blog for any amount of time, you realize that I’m willing to experiment a little — I’ve followed an ultra simple diet, I’ve tried multiple medications, and I’ve worked a variety of jobs.  Each of these experiments has taught me something about myself and the ways that my body and mind function best. I’ve learned that my body prefers tea over coffee, that my skin breaks out almost immediately if I eat corn (even my much-loved popcorn!), that pharmaceuticals aren’t the best option for my super sensitive body chemistry, and that I work best in positions that provide boundaries that I wouldn’t normally observe on my own.

Let me tell you a little more about that.  Instruction at Lindamood-Bell is broken into hourly segments. Most of our students come in for four hours a day.  Each hour they receive 55 minutes of instruction followed by a five-minute break. The instruction — 55 minutes of highly focused cognitive work — is tiring. Our students work hard, and so do our clinicians! Because of this, everyone stops once an hour to take a break, get a snack, go for a walk, use the bathroom, play a game, juggle, laugh, or otherwise rest from the intense work of instruction. Likewise, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, everyone stops for a fifteen-minute break. Often during these longer breaks, we celebrate student accomplishments, have a group treat like ice cream, or engage in group play like the center-wide nerf gun war we had recently. Everyone works hard; everyone takes breaks. It is required.

This is not a rhythm I fall into on my own, but I’m learning from it.

This very healthy rhythm of work and rest is further emphasized by the expectation that employees are only to work while on the clock. For the first time in decades, I punch a clock before I meet with a student, answer a question, or even reply to an email! Last weekend, while on a short vacation with my husband, I logged into my work email and quickly replied to a question.  Not long after that, my supervisor emailed me and said, “Thank you for the response, now STOP CHECKING YOUR WORK EMAIL WHILE YOU ARE ON VACATION!”  I chuckled to myself,  logged out, and walked down to the beach. This position requires that I work while I’m at work and rest when I’m not. That’s a good rhythm for me, too.

The boundaries of my work environment make it a healthy place for me to work, and so does the climate. Because most of our students have experienced multiple educational roadblocks and frustrations, it is critical that we provide a positive climate. All day long we praise, give rewards, and slap high fives. Each time a student responds to a question, he receives a “good job” or a “great try”. If she masters something that has been tricky, bells ring and the whole center applauds. Instructors get celebrated, too!  If one staff member sees another staff member do something great, he writes it down, points it out, and gives recognition.  All day long, we work hard to create a culture that celebrates individual effort and achievement. We smile, we laugh, and we cheer.

This, too, is not natural for me.  I tend to analyze, criticize, and strategize. These skills have been necessary and useful in a variety of positions I’ve held, but they don’t necessarily build a positive culture. Rather, in isolation, they support a climate of striving and perfectionism. Anyone who’s lived in such a culture knows how stressful that can be. What I’ve learned though, is that I can quickly adapt to a culture of positivity, support, and celebration. In fact, just like many students who have struggled in other learning environments, I thrive here. I am even finding that my skills of analysis, critical thinking, and strategizing are welcome, as long as they are tempered by compassion. And, I’m remembering that compassion comes naturally to me, too.

Yes; this position seems to be a good fit for me, but will I be able to sustain these good feelings while working 8 to 5, Monday through Friday?  I’m not sure, but I hope so. It seems that I’m learning at least as much as my students are.

Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
    and establish the work of our hands

Psalm 90:17

Trouble Drives the Narrative, re-visit

Written in May 2018, this post remains a favorite of mine. I’ve revisited it here — it’s a lesson I return to.

Every story worth reading is built around a problem –forbidden love, mistaken identity, murder, theft, robbery, and the like. I doubt many of us would even bother to read a story in which everything goes smoothly or in which the main character never faced a challenge. What would be the point?

If when Mayella Ewell accused Tom Robinson of violating her, someone had stepped up and said, “Come on now, you just want to accuse an innocent black man because it’ll make you feel better about yourself,” and Mayella had said, “Oh, you’re right. Sorry about that,” To Kill a Mockingbird wouldn’t have been a story. Sure, we all would’ve preferred Tom to have gone free — he was innocent after all, but Harper Lee builds her story around this fictional trouble to reveal a real-life trouble of the time. And that trouble drives her narrative.

In the story, Atticus Finch wrestles with racial injustice. We see him take risks to stand up to prejudice, shoot the symbolic rabid dog, and try to explain the harsh realities of life to Jem and Scout — and those are the reasons we love this story! We don’t love the ugliness of racism, the trial of an innocent man, his conviction, or his death. No, we like the character who recognizes and stands up to injustice, who doesn’t lose his head, who is able to speak truth and maintain hope. We don’t love the conflict, we love what the character does in the face of the conflict.

Without conflict a story hardly exists.

In fact, from early grades, we learn that stories have an arc — the exposition in which the writer provides context and sets the stage for the action, the rising action that introduces the conflict, the climax where the outcome of the conflict becomes evident, the falling action during which the loose ends get tied up, and the resolution that enables us to close the book and move on to the next story. The heart of every story is the conflict — the trouble drives the narrative.

The trouble, however, is not the story; the ways in which the character faces, weathers, endures, or learns from the trouble — that is the story.

Real life stories, too, consist of ups and downs, twists and turns, successes and failures, joys and disappointments. We expect these rhythms in the lives of fictional characters, but when we are living out our own life stories, we get can trapped in the mistaken belief that life is only good when it is free from trouble. When conflict is introduced — divorce, crime, illness, addiction — we can be tempted to believe that our story is over. Any writer knows that the introduction of conflict is the very beginning of the story.

The Wizard of Oz opens with a tornado that lifts Dorothy’s home off its very foundation, hurls it through the air, and lands it in a far away land with an impact that kills an evil witch. Talk about trouble! The story, however, is not about the tornado or the traumatic journey through the air or even about the witch, but it is about Dorothy’s ability to take step after step down the yellow brick road in a quest to find her way back to the people she loves.

The trouble is not the end of the story; it is the beginning.

Each of us has faced trouble. My close circle of friends could sit sipping coffee and share tales of betrayal, abuse, illness, financial ruin, scandal, and broken relationships. In fact, as we get to know one another, it is not typically our successes that we share but the troubles that have played out in our lives. Why? Because these times of trouble shape us. Just like Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson revealed his integrity and his ability to keep his cool when an angry mob confronted him in the middle of the night, our experience with trouble exposes our inner grit — that strength that lies dormant inside of us until a moment of crisis requires it to surface. Dorothy would’ve never known that she was capable of standing up to the Wicked Witch of the West if she hadn’t been hurled through the air and found herself in completely foreign territory.

Trouble reveals what we are made of.

In the smooth sailing sections of my life, I have been tempted to think that I know all there is to know. I have lived with the mistaken belief that I have it all together — that I can handle life all by myself, thank you very much. I’ve even been prone to judge those whose lives are not sailing smoothly — certain that their trouble is the result of some fault of their own.

However, when crisis arrives in my life — and it surely does — I have to admit that I don’t know everything, that I can’t work things out by myself, and that trouble comes with or without my help.

One thing remains certain: times of trouble shape me.

That’s what conflict does. It allows the character in the story to be transformed — to be dynamic — to be reshaped. Dorothy arrives back home with a new gratefulness for the people in her life. Scout, having watched Atticus navigate the trial of Tom Robinson, gains a new compassion for those who have a different experience than she does. Me? I learn humility and reliance on God.

Trouble brings me to my knees and forces me to admit that I am poor and needy. From this position on the ground, heaving with sobs, I hear a still small voice: Be still. Know that I am God. I will never leave you or forsake you. My sobbing softens. I remember that I am but dust. I am not exempt from suffering. No crisis has afflicted me that is not common to man. And certainly this trouble is not the end of my story.

I whisper a thank you as I wipe my tears and push myself up to standing. I remember the words prayed over me many years ago, “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”  That is my grit. That is my inner strength that sometimes lies dormant but never fails to surface in times of trial. The strength of my character is not in my ability to have all the answers but in my realization that I have none of them. That realization keeps my pride at bay and allows me to turn for guidance and strength to the One who knew me before I was born and who has written every page of my story. He is not surprised by the trouble; He is using it to re-shape my character.

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

John 16:33

Narrative threads

In Michigan this year, winter had stamina.  It seemed to begin way back in October and continue halfway through April. The temperatures were low, the snow banks were high, the skies were gray, and all felt bleak.

My daughter once informed me, after I had been an English teacher for well over a decade, that when nature imitates the mood of the story, literary critics refer to the phenomenon as pathetic fallacy.  

We see it all the time in literature and movies: rain falls during funerals, the sun shines on parades, lightning flashes and thunder claps as the evil villain hatches his plan.  Writers use the setting of a story to create mood and to signal for readers how they might feel about the action of the narrative.

Sometimes it seems to happen in real life, too.

As the winter wore on this year in all its bleakness, and as circumstances in the narrative of my life unfolded, I took my signal from nature and wrapped myself in gray.  I didn’t see any buds on trees, any new growth in my garden, or any other signals from nature that I should hope.  I saw the earth hunkering down under the weighty blanket of snow, and I hunkered, too.  I wrapped myself in crocheted afghans, drank cup after cup of tea, and waited for the earth’s axis to tilt once again toward the sun.

Some moments, I didn’t believe it would. I felt we were stuck in winter forever. Storm after storm raged. Winds blew. Temperatures dropped. The world outside was harsh and unforgiving.  I had no reason to believe that we would ever again see tulips sprout from the earth.

I didn’t, of course, spend the whole winter under covers. I did what everyone who lives in the north does in the winter. I slathered my body in moisturizers, layered on clothing, pulled on boots, hat, gloves, and coat, and trudged into the elements. Day after day after long, cold, dismal day, I drove over slushy roads, stepped in salty puddles, and scraped icy windshields. The cold gray weather was both real and symbolic.

The problem with pathetic fallacy — with letting the setting signal the mood — is that you can lose your frame of reference. All winter I was shrouded in gray, so all of the action in my narrative seemed to take on that hue. Now, to be honest, my life narrative is cluttered at the moment with conflict and unresolved tension. Villains too numerous to list are executing evil plans and threatening to harm those that I love. However, in the midst of the gray of winter, I failed to see that simultaneously, a parallel plot is unfolding — one in which battles are fought and won, victory parades are held, and loved ones are reunited.

All. is. not. gray.

It’s been hard to see that — what with winter lasting so long. It’s been easy to fall for the fallacy — the mistaken belief — that all of life is cold, dark, dormant.  In fact, I have over the last several months been pathetic — filled with all kinds of emotion. I have leaned in and felt things that I have not allowed myself to feel for a very long time.  I have cried and yelled and moaned because I have looked fully at one strand of the narrative. I’m not sorry; I needed to see it. But guys, winter is gone.

I have a rhubarb plant outside my back door that peeked through the soil on my birthday at the end of March. Since then, it’s been slammed with winter weather — snow, sleet, wind, and rain — and still it is thriving.  My garden is a bed of weeds, my yard is a mole metropolis that is sorely in need of raking and mowing, but the sun is shining, and all I can look at is that rhubarb.

The villains haven’t dropped their weapons, the conflicts have not all been resolved, but one stubborn plant that pushed its way through frozen ground way before winter had subsided reminds me that there is more than one thread in my narrative.  I have reason to bake pie, to plant seeds, and to fold up my afghans.

Earlier this week when I arrived home from work, my husband said, “Before you sit down, go look at the patio.” I knew before I looked what I would find — the adirondack chairs that my father-in-law made for us years ago had been put out after their long winter inside.

He had seen it, too: the sunshine, the rhubarb, the reason to hope.  So hope we will, as we sit on our patio, faces tilted toward the sun, and let this season have a chance to direct our feelings about our narrative.

Psalm 27:13

I am confident in this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

 

 

Bits of Truth

Words matter so much to me.  I realize this is pretty obvious: I do put a couple thousand on this page every week, and my chosen profession requires me to use tens of thousands  every day. Yeah, I love words; I’m drawn to them.

I typically read several hundred pages of fiction and/or non-fiction every week, and when I see words arranged in a way that resonates with me, I use my iphone to snap photos of them. Also, whenever I gather with two or more, I arrive with a notebook and a pen, prepared to write down the meaningful and the trivial.  I scratch out notes at work, at church, and in my small group.

I spend my life surrounded by words, and I tend to horde them. As I was making my way to this space today, I grabbed a couple scraps of paper from my desk, my phone, a notebook crammed with sermon notes, a book I’m reading, and my laptop.  What do these items have in common?  They all contain words that I have gathered from one place or another and carried home with me. One bit of paper travelled all the way from my trip to St. Louis last November. Another is from a visit to Cincinnati about a month ago.  My shoes and toothbrush might not have made it home, but these scraps of paper not only survived the trip, they have remained on top of my desk through several frantic clutter-clearing purges.

What could they possibly say that would validate my gripping them so tightly?

The one from November, which I scribbled while sitting in church with dear friends, says “I can have hope that He will redeem my loved ones and me and my community.”

The paper I shoved in my pocket after church last month in Cincinnati says,  “Lord, if you don’t do something here, we are in trouble.”

In my notes from our small group Bible study I find, “This life is unsettled and incomplete,” and “hope wins.”

Last night, I started Jodi Picoult’s small great things.  I opened the cover and read these words from James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed unless it is faced.”

Pithy phrases all.  Concise.  Succinct.  Power-packed.

Why do I store these clusters of words?

Because in the emotional haze in which I have been existing, I wander around searching for beacons of truth. And, for me, truth is usually found in print.  I don’t write down every word I see, but when I see words that speak truth, I capture them. I hold them.  I carry them around.

Here’s why. Emotions are powerful.  They are expressions of deep feelings that need to be experienced, but they don’t always tell the truth.  My emotions tell me that all is lost, that hope has died, that everything counts on me, that I’m the only one with problems, and that none of this will ever work out.  I weep on my bed and get so carried away by my tears that I never want to stand up again.  Overwhelmed with sorrow, I reach out my hand and grab something to read to quiet myself.  Without fail, I find some shred of truth that breaks through my exaggerating and misled emotions.

I find myself speaking out loud:

All is not lost; God will redeem my loved ones and me and my community.

Everything does not count on me; Jesus is doing something here.

I am certainly not the only one with problems — despite what social media wants me to believe — but my only chance at working through the problems I have is to face them.

All of this will work out. Sure, life is unsettled, but hope wins.

My pulse slows.  My breathing returns to regularity. I close my eyes and move toward sleep.

Yes, I feel dark things still — anger, sadness, grief, and pain.  These feelings are valid,  and I will quash them no longer.  I will sit with them.  I will feel them.  And, I will speak truth to them.  I will not be overcome.

John 16:33

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

 

 

 

 

Feel This

Barbara Brown Taylor, in Learning to Walk in the Dark, asks “What if I could learn to trust my feelings instead of asking to be delivered from them?  What if I could follow one of my great fears all the way to the edge of the abyss, take a breath, and keep going?  Isn’t there a chance of being surprised by what happens next?”

Gasp. Trust my feelings?  That is not one of my internal constructs.

I received the message very early that I was supposed to control my emotions, not trust them.   I’ve often been told that I laugh too loudly, cry too easily, and “wear my emotions on my sleeve.”  Although many have tried to encourage me to rein in my feelings, I’m starting to understand that I have been designed to feel fully and express loudly.

My great grandmother, bless her heart and rest her soul, was possibly the first to encourage me to tame my emotions. She was of the pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality that had enabled her to marry a widower, raise his daughter plus one of her own, run a household, and remain financially stable even when she herself became a widow at a fairly early age.  I loved being around her.  She was a feisty woman with a sparkle in her eye who always welcomed me into her life of baseball games, crocheting, gardening, and baking. She seemed to be at the center of  family gatherings where over twenty of us would eat, tell stories, laugh, and play. Often, near the end of these get-togethers with all the people I loved, I would become tired and sad. Most people in my family just accepted the reality of going home; they grabbed their things, piled into cars, and left.  Me? I bawled. I sobbed. I ugly cried.  Ill-equipped to handle such unbridled expression, my great grandmother tried shame: “Stop that crying, do you want people to see you looking like that?  What if I took a picture of your face right now?”  Those words still sting, but because they came from a woman I loved and admired, I tried to learn how to hold in my tears and behave like the rest of my more reserved family.

That didn’t go well.  Sadness turned in, in my experience, becomes anger.  I can be found in many family photos glaring into the camera lens, because dammit, if I can’t cry, I’m at least gonna be pissed.  And pissed I was.

When my parents divorced, my three siblings seemed to deal with their grief in much quieter ways.  I don’t remember them yelling the questions I yelled, or crying the tears that I cried.  Nor do I recall them throwing things at my stepfather across the kitchen table and stomping out the door to ‘run away’ over and over again.

My middle school memories include scenes of me sobbing in the hallway, yelling at classmates, and getting made fun of for my extra-obnoxious laugh. The reactions of students and teachers to my emotional expression gave me one consistent message — you’re too loud! Calm down!  So, I attempted to calm myself and to soothe my hurts.

How does a preteen do that?  Hours and hours of television, libraries full of books, pounds of potato chips and dip, sodas by the million, and retreats into my room to listen to music and write.

I also tried creative elaboration (lying), academic achievement (perfectionism), and subtle coercion of my friends and classmates (bullying).  None of these strategies had the lasting effect of quieting me; they merely added more emotions — shame, pride, guilt — to the pile that I was already trying not to express.

All was not terrible, of course.  I had friends with staying power and a family who loved me in spite of my emotionality. I was successful in school and well-connected at church. Nevertheless, my feelings were always simmering right at the surface.

High school, in my memory, was a blur of exploring the emotional spectrum.  I felt everything — anger, sadness, joy, love, betrayal, embarrassment, jealousy, pride, fear.  Those four years were a wild ride that involved laughing with friends, glaring at teachers, perfecting the art of sarcasm, breaking rules, being ashamed, and lashing out.  Even in the emotional hotbed of adolescence — I stood out.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I was voted “moodiest” by my classmates –a designation memorialized in my high school year book.

The transition to college allowed me an opportunity to be different — to be less emotional.  I think I tried, but by the end of freshman year, my coping mechanism of eating had packed on some pounds, and my fear of “getting fat” caused an overcorrection that became an eating disorder. I turned my focus to restrictive eating to control my weight, and devoid of emotion, I moved through my routine, barely interacting with the people in front of me, and deeming each day a win or a loss on the basis of my total calorie count and the number on the scale.

I may have finally controlled my emotions, but they remained, lurking deep beneath the surface.  I was terribly sad, but I didn’t cry.  I just soldiered on until I collapsed, gasping for breath.

That was over thirty years ago.

Therapy and maturity have healed some hurts, and I have, of course, learned how to more appropriately manage my emotions.  I was certainly going to get it right with my own children.  I was going to let them feel what they felt — cry their tears and laugh their laughs. My intentions were good, but life gets complicated, and when it does, we fall back on old faithful patterns.  Surely my children watched me hold back tears; they saw me swallow anger and soldier through difficulty. Despite my best efforts, my estranged relationship with my emotions has had an impact on the people who have shared a home and a life with me.  How could it not?

So when I consider Barbara Brown Taylor’s ‘what if’ question, I’m challenged to try a new strategy.  She offers me an opportunity to feel what I am feeling, to lean in and explore sadness, regret, grief, and anger.

These are not pleasant feelings, but I’m learning that they must be felt.  They don’t go away.  If I paste on a smile, square my shoulders, and strengthen my resolve, I am only delaying the inevitable.  And the inevitable eventually shows up at the front door with a summons, refusing to go away until you get in the car and ride to the place where you face all of your realities.

So now when I wake up in the middle of the night, heart beating quickly, franticly worrying over things that were or might be, I don’t wish myself back to sleep.  I lie still for a while, looking my feelings straight in the face, and after a while of sitting with these strangers, I get out of bed, come to the keys, and write.  Of all the strategies I have tried over the years, this is the one that allows me to tap deep into the well of feelings that have been locked deep inside, under armor and facades and lies.

Here, I tell the truth, and the truth is: I am hurting.

I am so sad. I have lost so much. And finally, I am going to cry.

It might be loud.  It might be messy.  I might attract attention.

I’m ok with that.

I have a feeling that I’m not the only one who needs permission to weep. I’m not the only one who needs a chance to be surprised by what happens next.

Ecclesiastes 3:4

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;